5 minutes with the VFX Supervisor of the upcoming live action Mulan
Taking a brief break from production on Disney’s upcoming live-action film, Mulan, we caught up with VFX Supervisor Sean Faden. Best known for his work on 2010 hit Let Me In and the recent reimagining of Power Rangers in 2017, we discussed Sean’s most memorable moments in the film industry and how cineSync has helped shape his career.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your background in film
I originally didn’t set out to work in film. At UCLA, I studied mechanical engineering and learnt about 3D Design. Back then, I was already a film nerd especially when it came to movies like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then one day, the CFO of Digital Domain gave a presentation and I quickly fell in love with visual effects (VFX).
I got my first job working in the Digital Domain model shop, doing auto CAD design for miniatures. At about the same time, I got a chance to explore the shooting stage of production on set. I ended up working for six weeks on the 1997 film Starship Troopers as a ‘bug wrangler’, having to carry these blood-drenched creature puppets around – it was definitely an experience! After a few more months, Digital Domain introduced me to the digital side of production on Titanic. I became an early user of Houdini and never looked back, especially as the CG sector began to really take off in the late 90s.
How important is remote collaboration to your pipeline?
Nowadays, the film industry is so vast and spread out across the globe. I wouldn’t even know how to begin coordinating a project without a tool like cineSync. It’s part of our daily routine. I’ve worked as a vendor in the VFX industry for about 20 years, and have been pretty dependent on cineSync as a way to communicate with clients, before going to Lionsgate to work on the new Power Rangers. But even on the client side of things, I was still using cineSync to drive production, setting up daily or bi-weekly sessions with the vendors. cineSync acts like a portal into other studios around the world, allowing you to really drive your point home.
We’re able to talk with teams in New Zealand, Montreal, Vancouver, China or any other film industry hub in cineSync at the click of a button – so long as the time zones work out and everyone can grab a cup of coffee. When it comes to animation or moving images, cineSync is especially useful. It’s like looking over someone’s shoulder to talk through a visual issue without confusion. I end up letting vendors take me through their playlist, which helps them feel empowered. cineSync puts everyone on equal footing, which I think is important because artists should have creative freedom and the ability to drive the conversation. They’re able to present their work in the best possible light.
Was there a specific feature of cineSync that you immediately responded to? (i.e. annotations, real-time playback, PDF export, etc)
I’ve been using cineSync since it was first developed in about 2005, back when the software developers had just branched off from Rising Sun. I can’t see myself doing a project without cineSync now – it’s an integral part of the vocabulary of VFX Supervisors. The ability to share a drawing, and to share in the experience of going through every shot, watching the frames in real-time, is invaluable. There’s no substitute for that.
I tend to talk and draw a lot – especially in the initial stages of production when there’s a lot of banter! cineSync is a great way to play around and have fun conversations with the vendors, making everybody feel comfortable with the upcoming project.
What have been some of the most exciting projects of your career?
cineSync is working out great for us on Disney’s upcoming live-action Mulan. We have another eight months of post-production on it, so we have a long way to go, but already cineSync has proven it’s worth. I can do sessions from my desktop, from our screening room, on a weekend – it’s a way to always stay connected.
I think working on the 2017 reboot of Power Rangers was a lot of fun as well, and it definitely benefited from cineSync. We could use the annotation tools to say “I want to put smoke here”, and actually draw with a soft grey pen to define the colors involved with a pinpoint level of detail. It helped cut down on the number of iterations after rendering.
On Let Me In, produced in 2010, I remember using cineSync to discuss character animation speeds. We had several sessions with the director, Matt Reeve, and VFX Sup Brad Parker. They weren’t local so we needed to keep in contact remotely. In one review, we started playing around with cineSync’s speed controls while watching the animation. Just by tweaking the speed of playback by about 10%, we could all interactively see what worked and what didn’t, without having to pester the animator for a wedge of different animations options. In cineSync, we could just quickly give animators guidance without the back-and-forth, cutting down on time wasted.
Can you think of a particular VFX-heavy scene for which cineSync was invaluable?
We created a pin wall to portray Zordon, the leader of the Power Rangers. Voiced and performed by Bryan Cranston, we knew all of the character’s lines and recorded his full facial capture at Animatrik, a mocap studio in Vancouver. We had nine cameras filming his performance, all synced and time coded. Those cameras could generate a 3D mesh, which Image Engine then used to generate a map and drive a million pins forming Zordon’s face, emerging from a CG wall that replaced the massive green screen. Each pin was procedurally animated in Houdini with ripple effects.
What cineSync allowed us to do was draw on the wall for any given shot. We could specify the placement of Zordon’s face, how big it should be, and literally draw anywhere across this 50 foot section of wall. We’d even plan the animation by moving between frames, drawing here and there like a flip book, scrubbing through to make sure effects and movements are consistent. cineSync helped define an otherwise esoteric, intangible asset. Doing that over the phone would be impossible, drawing on still frames would be ridiculous, cineSync allowed us to load up a cut and execute changes interactively.